In House with Danone: Working at One of the World’s Largest Food and Beverage Companies
by Theresa Christine Johnson on 08/24/2023 | 8 Minute Read
You can’t go to a grocery store without seeing Danone brands.
From Evian and Silk to Oikos and Horizon Organic, they have seemingly endless offerings, including some of the most loved products in spaces, whether it's bottled water, yogurts, and dairy or plant-based beverages. But what is it like to be one of the designers behind these brands on Danone’s in-house design team?
Like Target, Taco Bell, and PepsiCo, Danone has its own in-house team of designers and creatives who have their hands on the brand every step of the way. When it’s time to refresh a brand or work on a new project, Danone sometimes brings freelancers and studios into the fold—but they never completely hand a product to an outside party. Danone relies on its team of approximately 30 people to get the job done.
“We think of ourselves as the brand guardian,” said Lauren Koprowski, creative director for brand design strategy at Danone. “Yes, we are designers by trade, but we kind of sit within a greater creative group called the Center of Excellence. Within that Center of Excellence, we are brand design; within brand design, we have creative designers and account managers, and it’s very similar to an agency type of setting. But then we work alongside people who do naming, people who do copywriting, and people who do consumer engagement. So we are a brand design group, but we really work within a greater creative powerhouse.”
Lauren, along with Nancy Johnson and Jane Sayer, both senior managers of brand design, sat down with Dieline to talk more about their experiences working in-house at Danone. The three of them came from the CPG branding space (although the team, as a whole, has varied backgrounds), and all three used to believe what many on the agency side think: that in-house is where designers go to die.
“I had this preconceived notion coming from agencies that in-house is not creative, or not fulfilling, or it's really corporate, or it's really boring, but truthfully, I haven't felt that one day, ever,” Nancy said. “We have incredibly strong relationships with the brand teams. We get a lot of autonomy with some of the projects we get to run because I think there's a closeness and a trust that we've established and already set up with the brand teams. But we also get the understanding of maybe why a project gets canceled or why the timing is so nuts."
“When I was at agencies, you didn't necessarily have that visibility because you're a few steps away from the business and the full 360 understanding of the objectives for the year," Nancy added. "So each year, our leaders set big bets, and we know what to concentrate on throughout the entire year. It helps us focus and allows us to really prioritize some of the things that we know the company is going after.”
From the Danone in-house perspective, the clearer comprehension of the business’ inner workings is just another layer of understanding the brand, and creativity is as much a part of the job as an agency gig. When Light + Fit needed a refresh, for example, it required them to rethink the brand’s strategy to make a major change. Jane explained that the yogurt brand seemed out of touch with culture and needed to shift from an idea of deprivation to permission.
“We really wanted to tap into this consumer and what they were looking for,” Jane explained. “They're looking for permission to eat, to enjoy, to consume, and to enjoy life. We changed from this idea of diet culture, which is really outdated, to a celebration of all body types, all kinds of women, and all kinds of consumers, and that really drove everything from the beginning to the end.”
With this in mind, they redesigned Light + Fit’s packaging in collaboration with Beardwood and Co., but Jane admitted the entire project was so much more than just the packaging. Creative design lead Amanda Villalobos helped the team create a brand world and book that depicts the brand’s voice—inspired by the ride-or-die bestie who always has your back—and filled it with images and set designs that embody the idea of female empowerment. Danone ensures that Light + Fit also practices what it preaches, with a Returnship that helps women returning to the workforce.
Designing with Danone looks a little different for each project. Because they have many brands, the in-house team tackles a redesign only when one is truly called for. The collective takes a few weeks to strategize and figure out what needs to change before they concern themselves too deeply with how they will make that change. This period might involve research or talking to consumers before landing on a solid creative brief to lead them.
“Sometimes we get projects where you think you need an entire brand reinvention, but you actually just need your portfolio and your design architecture to be solved,” Lauren said. “Like you have all the right equities and assets. So that creative brief part is integral.”
After the brief is determined, stakeholders and senior staff sign off on it, and anyone who will touch the brand during the project will get the brief so they’re involved early on in the process. They then go into a design strategy phase, which involves auditing the brand and market research, followed by the creative exploratory phase. That is where they really push the brand and see what it can do and what it could look like, and it involves a lot of consumer feedback to ensure they’re headed in the right direction. Then, the final step is fine-tuning the brand universe.
When Covid hit in early 2020, this made their design process infinitely more challenging. During this time, they worked on the coffee creamer and iced coffee brand International Delight. For the first round of creative, they worked with Stone Strategy, all while still figuring out how to work remotely—and eventually, the team developed a design strategy and clarity brief that highlighted what was working well for the brand as well as the opportunities to own the space even more.
“We did some consumer research, and there was just this mentality of ‘My day’s not right if I don't have my coffee with my favorite flavor of International Delight,’’” Nancy said. “We saw this as an opportunity for us to lean in and own this joyful feeling that our consumers get with the brand already, really owning our flavor celebration and our party. We are this joyful, really happy rainbow of flavors on the shelf. There's a lot of sameness in the creamer category, so we wanted to make sure that whatever we came up with was distinctly ownable for the brand. We know we have to show coffee on the front of the pack, but how can we make sure that we can point ours out in a lineup and ensure that the consumers can do the same as well?”
That’s quite a challenge, considering that International Delight has a vast array of flavors, including many limited edition and seasonal ones. So while the packaging is festive and playful, with adorable “mugmojis” and bright, bold colors, they also found a way to stand out confidently. The packaging features a yellow mug—a caffeinated sunshine of sorts that’s easily recognizable and feels like a positive first step in anyone’s morning routine.
Through all of the brands they get their hands on, Jane, Lauren, and Nancy (in addition to senior design manager Eric Winslow) have all discovered that in-house design can be a place where designers thrive. Every day can bring them a different design challenge, and they’re always working on a different brand. And ultimately, they get to be more involved in the process—a blessing and a curse, in its own way. In house, designers know that whatever work they produce will eventually come back to them, and the team is perpetually walking the line between taking risks and pushing the brand’s limits while preserving consumer loyalty and taking the brand down a logical route for its evolution.
“If it doesn't work for the business, we're the ones who are responsible for that,” Lauren said. “And even though we love something as designers or strategists, it's our brand. If we want that brand to survive, we need to use design for problem-solving and not just think about it as a beauty contest.”